'Commoner' Peeks Past Japan's Royal Walls The Commoner, a novel by John Burnham Schwartz, paints a picture of the suffocating life that follows marriage into the Japanese royal family. The story sheds light on the real-life imperial family.
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'Commoner' Peeks Past Japan's Royal Walls

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'Commoner' Peeks Past Japan's Royal Walls

'Commoner' Peeks Past Japan's Royal Walls

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, annoying music comes to the political campaign.

But first, Haruko plays tennis well. She speaks French beautifully, and has a wealthy father. But she is a commoner. One day in the late 1940s, she and her mother stand outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and see the crowned prince ride by on his horse.

(Soundbite of Excerpt from "The Commoner")

Mr. JOHN BURNHAM SCHWARTZ (Author, "The Commoner"): (Reading) One noticed nothing militaristic in his bearing. And so as the seconds passed and the clopping of his horse rang loudly in our ears like two giant pairs of wooden sandals, the image of his father, the emperor on his magnificent white horse, finally began to recede into another era. He dipped his head at people as he slowly passed. Each dip, a bow in miniature. In return they bowed deeply to him, the weight of history on their backs. I bowed deeply and then he was passed.

SIMON: That's John Burnham Schwartz, his new novel based on the life of a real empress of Japan, tells the story of a young girl who grows up to marry a prince, whom she grows to love, has a son she adores, becomes empress, and then in her later years, an unseen but powerful force for a kind of insurrection. Schwartz's new book is "The Commoner."

John Burnham Schwartz joins us in our studios. So nice to have you with us. Thanks very much.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Nice to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Haruko's father is opposed at first when the entreaty comes from the palace. And not just, I'm going to say this speaking as a father, that reflects of defensive - I don't care if he is a prince, he's not good for you, kind of.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Yes.

SIMON: But her father seems to have some sense that this could be a lonely existence.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think he has a sense both of what that might bring and a sense as well that his daughter to him seems a quite unusual person; rather extraordinary with intelligence and interests far beyond that of a sort of typical Japanese young woman of the time. And he also of course loves her deeply. They're very close. And their relationship, though it may not cover a great many pages in the book, is fundamental to the book in the sense that it evokes the world that she has given up when she crosses over.

So yes, he does make an attempt to sort of push back this initial interest on the part of the crown prince. But over time that interest is really too strong, in some sense, to be denied. And the fact is that she does love him. This is not necessarily the case 30 years later with her son and his fiancée.

SIMON: When Haruko becomes an empress, Haruko ceases to become a daughter, ceases almost at one point to become a mother, although she's still a very devoted mother. That's sort of, some of those duties are taken from her - and she's told, no, you're the empress; you have more important things to do. On the one hand it's hard to feel sorry for someone who becomes the empress, but inevitably you're led to.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes. I would say that the difference that I found between, let's say, Princess Di, who's the, I guess the obvious comparison. Princess Di at her best evoked in us a deep level of recognition for her human qualities. What it was in her that reminded us of how she was like us, and I use the us quite liberally. For the Japanese Imperial family, their entire raison d'etre is a symbolic function.

And the weight of history has been used and all of the strictures and limitations, the fact that they're almost never allowed to speak their own words, perform their own actions in any way, individually express themselves as human beings. The weight of all of this falls on them and it's in some degree meant to flatten them, because a three-dimensional person can't be a symbol, a pure symbol. And these people are meant to be pure symbols.

And so when the Japanese look at the empress, and the crown princess, and the other members of the Imperial family, they are not encouraged, or indeed, prone to recognizing in them their own qualities and saying, oh, they're just like us. And so these people are in fact removed that much more from the actual atmosphere of real life.

SIMON: At one point Haruko says to her husband, the emperor, who she truly does seem to love, grow to love, I need a friend. And he says…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: We don't get to have friends. There's a quality of loneliness that is very poignant. It's something that I came to feel very strongly. I think that it's a terrible position to be in. I think the system, no matter what it may say, and the crown princess, when she came in speaking her six languages and growing up all over the world - this young woman, it was said that she might transform the family, no such thing has happened. The family will not be transformed.

And I think the more you know about the situation of these women in this world, you can't help at a human level want to know what it might be like to be human and alive in there, sort of trapped inside, while your holograph, as it were, is being beamed to the surface. And your holograph is speaking words that are not yours, and performing actions that are not yours, and these are words and actions that have been spoken and performed for more than 1000 years, and they have nothing to do with you.

SIMON: What prevents Haruko from just one day walking across the moat and maybe not all at once but trying to pick up the semblance of some ordinary life?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, a number of things. And this question is asked about the current crown princess as well, who ever since she gave birth to her one child, a daughter in 2001, Princess Aiko, has suffered a series of breakdowns and has hardly been seen in public for almost four years. If she does leave, she probably never sees her child again. They won't let these children go.

SIMON: Because the child, in a sense, belongs to the nation..

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes. It does. And there's no way really that she could go back into society. Whatever people say, the sympathy that younger people definitely have for her and the older generation has for the empress, who's in her 70s, nonetheless, if they were to do this, the sense of shirking their duty would be so shameful in that country, that I think their lives would be impossible.

When I did begin to imagine an ending for this book, one of the reasons I also wanted to write this book, in a sense, was that as a novelist, I'm looking for an ending to any book that has an organic quality to it. It's not an ending that I - I thought about four years ago and thought, oh, how perfect. It's an ending that actually comes out of the characters themselves and the lives that they have been living in this book and what they have done and how they have thought.

The problem, the more I learned about the actual situation of these people and the Imperial family, the more completely unacceptable, it seemed to me, both in a human and a narrative sense, because the system…

SIMON: You mean just leaving?


SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: No - actually the way it is now with both of them sort of broken down and never leaving because it denies the human at every turn. And by denying the human, it disallows that organic narrative quality that we're looking for in fiction as well as in life. And so I thought, you know, it's time to write my own ending. And then I struggled with that, but finally you find one that somehow seems to fit.

SIMON: I mean, without giving anything away, it's an ending that would make you smile.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I thought it through as far as I could in a very logistical way. It goes back to one of the things also that made me want to write this book, and that had to do always with the idea of the relationship between these two women.

SIMON: Haruko and then Kiko, the young woman who…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes, and Kiko, who's the crown princess.

SIMON: Kiko is a young woman who comes into her life, also a commoner, speaks six languages, is, I guess in the diplomatic circle if I'm not mistaken.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes. Expected to become the first female head of the foreign ministry, which is just astounding in terms of a woman achieving that position in Japan.

SIMON: And then Haruko's son who at that point is the crown prince asked her to marry him.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yes. And he falls in love with her and she rejects him three times. One can only imagine what that must take. The pressure in such an insular and homogeneous country, in which duty plays such a large role, and her father being a very prominent diplomat who has his own career to look after.

SIMON: Also the reader is thinking, what would be so terrible about marrying the prince?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. The thing is she, at some level she knew, but she also - you can't know. This goes back to the initial, the empress. She said no at first. She had some idea, eventually she chooses. But the problem is, is that it's not a choice really. It's fixed. You cross the moat, you get in there and you find that you're walking along and suddenly you fall down a well that's about 5000 feet deep.

Down at the bottom of the well is this civilization, if you can call it that, that's been going on forever. And they tell you what you will speak from now on; what words. And they tell you what you will do from now on. But then 30 years later, your son falls in love with this woman, who at some level reminds you of you as you were then.

And it's understandable you might want her to come down and join you. But the terrible irony is that she's the only one in the world who truly knows what that means to bring her down, to say, come down here with me. And maybe she does in fact, as the rumor had it, meet with her privately and offer to protect her, which is something she cannot follow through on.

And at a certain point, you have to imagine that the older woman really asks herself, well, how long can we allow this to go on?

SIMON: John Burnham Schwartz. His new novel is "The Commoner." You can hear the author talked more about the Imperial Japanese family and read an excerpt from his book at npr.org/books.

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